Welcome to Chez Marius, the little local café in my ‘home’ village of Puivert. Join me in my favourite cosy corner as I pen this blog, trying not to drip coffee from my croissant onto the laptop keys – we dip them here, you know!
First, let me tell you about Jonesy. He’s been a pal for years – a renowned PR guru and journo. He’s a specialist in Olympic archery and the ever-popular arena of bog-snorkelling. Just the other day, we were chatting about the holiday lettings business that my wife, Marianne and I own – here in the little village of Puivert, tucked away in this gorgeous south-western corner of France. When it comes to PR, Jonesy certainly knows his stuff. He reckons we might attract even more visitors if we were to write a regular blog. So – here we are. Welcome to blog number one.
A French rural idyll
Let’s start with the terminology. Puivert is a village. It’s in the ‘département’ of Aude, which is, in turn, in the ‘région’ of Occitanie. The world of Puivert is one of cattle, chickens, apple orchards and gentle, spiritual folk – a harmonious idyll nestling in the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees.
So how did a British couple find themselves relishing their late middle age in this quiet, bucolic corner of south-western France – a rural utopia?
Culture, food, wine and delightful people
Well, for many years, Marianne and I had harboured ambitions of moving to France. We’ve always been in love with the place – the varied scenery, the culture, food, wine and its delightful people. It was skiing that had first really drawn us to the country. On our frequent trips, we’d made friends. Many of these were immigrants from the UK, who, following temporary jobs in tourism, particularly skiing, had settled for good.
Our intention had been to buy a property in the Alps and semi-retire – working in the skiing industry during the winters, and doing whatever was necessary to pay the bills during the summer. But a trip to see friends from Northamptonshire, who’d moved to Aude a couple of years previously, changed our minds. One visit and we were smitten. It took a few years – and a couple of false starts – but the deed was eventually done and we were happily installed in our lovely new home in Puivert.
What’s so special about Puivert?
For starters, it’s a fascinating place, steeped in history – the Cathar Wars, the persecution of the Huguenots, the origins of the Troubadours, the heroics of the Maquis during WWII. The population of the village and surrounding “Camps” (more of which another time) is around 500, about 20% of whom are British. We have our own castle, which featured prominently in Kate Mosse’s book, “The Burning Chambers”, set in the French Wars of Religion in the 16th Century. There’s a lake with a beach, a gliding club – Les Planeurs de Puivert en Quercorb – and a tiny village school, with 20 children (or 21 – the editor of the village magazine, appears unsure).
A colourful history
According to legend, the château de Puivert overlooked a “huge and wonderful lake”. However, in 1279 or 1289 (depending on which version most appeals to you), the restraining barrage ruptured and the lake burst through, flooding the valley as far west as Mirepoix, 30km away. Hundreds perished in the resulting devastation.
Since those times, Puivert has experienced mixed fortunes, with the population increasing to nearly 2,000 in 1831 and declining to just 410 in 1999. Then along came … the British!
Numerous and varied attractions
Drawn by the usual attractions – weather, scenery, lifestyle – not forgetting low property prices, a trickle of new inhabitants from the UK began arriving. The immigrant population has since grown steadily, contributing to community life, notably at the gliding club and the local Maison Jeunes et Culture. The latter acts as a central hub for cultural, social and educational activities for young and old. It organises numerous activities – the annual “Festival of Lights” in December, weekly English and French conversation classes, film evenings, and crafts and skills workshops. We have our own micro-brewery, too, run by a British couple.
The lake, somewhat smaller since the disaster in the Middle Ages, provides a popular venue for families from the end of May through to September. Its small beach, in peak season, is patrolled by a lifeguard. Fishing too is a popular pastime. Throughout the summer, numerous walkers, cyclists and holidaymakers enjoy the restaurant and snack bar.
A café run by volunteers
Back to Chez Marius. Imagine idling away the hours in the company of a paperback, a ‘proper’ coffee and warm, oven-fresh croissants. This is Chez Marius – a “café associatif”, a coffee shop and dépôt de pain, run by volunteers. I happily and dutifully take my turn. Drop by on a Tuesday morning and you’ll find me dispensing coffee, bread, croissants, chocolatines (that’s “pain au chocolat” to outsiders) and harmless, occasionally animated conversation in my improving, yet still questionable, French.
Supporting the local economy
Most of the newcomers have bought properties. Between us, we’ve spent hundreds of thousands of Euros with local builders’ merchants and DIY outlets, local tradesmen and professionals. A confession – last year, I succumbed to making my maiden visit to IKEA, a dubious pleasure I’d managed to avoid for 20 years back in the UK!
The Puivertains are unfailingly welcoming to outsiders. Generally, we étrangers behave ourselves pretty well, mixing in, taking part in local activities and spending our money in the local bars, restaurants and supermarkets. Many of us have holiday lets, and these attract several hundred visitors a week into the village during the peak season, boosting the local economy which, apart from agriculture, is founded firmly in tourism. The night markets by the lake in July and August are a fun and enjoyable distraction for locals and tourists alike, whilst also providing a lucrative opportunity for small entrepreneurs. There’s usually live music, with the opportunity for you to show off your dad-dancing to a mixture of Europop and standard rock covers. I hadn’t realised there were so many different ways to massacre Patrick Hernandez’ disco “classic”, Born to be Alive!
A gentler life
Time passes here at a delightfully slower pace than in the UK. The region is sparsely populated, with relatively few cars – more than three vehicles at a junction constitute a traffic jam! In the low season, many restaurants and bars close down.
In spite of (OK – let’s be honest – because of) the striking differences between the lifestyles of Occitanie and East Northamptonshire, Puivert, for Marianne and me, is certainly now ‘home’ – our idyllic little corner of the World. The idea of returning to the UK, Brexit or not Brexit, never, for a single moment, crosses our minds.
I’ll be writing more of these little vignettes, whenever there are tales to tell about our wonderful life here in the south of France. Let me know your own thoughts or experiences of rural France. Just drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.
Now – time, for another croissant …